Traversing the Nepali women musicians journey
People say, “Music is universal.” Is it though in a real sense? Does everyone who wants to learn and play music have the same access and freedom to move ahead, or are they curtailed by different factors that govern their lives: caste, class, region and the gender they identify with in a society like that of Nepal. Five women musicians share their musical journeys, the challenges they had to navigate because they are women and they belong to certain communities.
Journey from Yala Maya Kendra to Rabindra Bharati University
Yaju Aacharya prefers to meet me at Bhaktapur Durbar Square during the first half of the day. It is 10.30 am on a Monday. Not sure if I hadn’t been in this square at that time on a weekday before or maybe because it was raining a little, I had not seen the square that empty.
We sit at a falcha and start our conversation wearing masks. It was only later while having tea that we take them off. I ask about her schedule.
“In the afternoon, I am busy creating a small studio in my house. The idea is to have a space for my own instrumental band that I recently formed. In the evening I teach flute to a group of nine people ranging from 11 to 22 years old.” Note that Yaju is only 23 herself.
Yaju grew up in a household where she listened to her mom singing and playing the harmonium. When Yaju was still young, a teacher recommended the flute. While learning how to play the flute, Yaju found out that there are not many women who play the instrument. This motivated her to learn it better and perhaps create a path for other young girls to take up the instrument.
“Young girls are not motivated to pursue music as a career; and when some of them do, they usually end up encouraged to become singers. Instruments, let alone instruments like the flute, are chosen by very few women,” she remarks.
After learning the flute for almost five years at Yala Maya Kendra, in 2017 Yaju applied for a scholarship to study the flute at Ravindra Bharati University in India. Due to the Covid 19 lockdown, it was through virtual exams and performances that she finished her graduation in 2020.
The Covid 19 lockdown has been quite difficult for many people but for Yaju it provided different opportunities that helped her to hone her skills and evolve as a flute player. It was during this time that she could collaborate with other classical instrument players to form a band called FRET to perform virtually for Echoes in the Valley. After the performance, they have continued their collaboration. For Yaju, it has always been a dream to be part of an instrumental band and promote instrumental music.
Unfortunately, for some digital performances she has been requested to put on makeup and look more “beautiful” so that viewership of those videos could be increased. Many times Yaju has heard people say that women musicians get all the attention because they are women; this really breaks her heart.
“I wish people could see all the trips that I made during weekends on a local bus from Bhaktapur to Lalitpur to learn the flute, sometimes during weekdays not getting a chance to sit for the flute lesson after travelling all the way because I needed to attend school. All my hard work that I have put in these last ten years – people do not see that!”
In addition to the long hours spent practicing and travelling, it has not been easy for Yaju to be on stage when she was the only woman in the band. While people who respect music welcomed her performance as a skilled flute player, she has had the experience of being bullied during and after a show. “I am sad that in today’s time, I need to have a male friend to feel safe during night time gigs.”
For Yaju, many things need to change at different levels to ensure more young girls are encouraged to take up music. Ensuring accessible music classes for people who belong to different economic classes, changing people’s perceptions about the role of women in society as creative people who can make music their profession, having proper toilets at rehearsal venues are few changes that Yaju can think of to make music more inclusive for women.
Yaju did receive support from her parents and friends while she was learning the flute; yet she believes they were not expecting her to pursue a career playing this instrument. She is using money saved from her scholarship to build a studio to continue her musical career, and she is determined to persevere. For her, the flute is not only about playing a musical instrument but rather a medium to express her inner voice.
No fare for taxi to 25K YouTube followers
It must have been during her initial days of performing gigs as a bass player in restaurants that sealed her fate as a musician. Renu Syangbo remembers carrying her heavy instrument from the restaurant to her home at midnight as her band couldn’t afford the taxi fare. That is not the case these days. Not only can she afford a taxi, she has 25,000 YouTube followers, and is still one of the few female bass players in town who has performed in both all-male and all-female bands.
Renu and I met at Boudha. She gave me directions to a café near the Stupa; it has art work done by her husband who recently left for the USA to do a Master’s degree in Fine Arts. She misses him; no surprise there.
We start our conversation while enjoying mint lemon iced tea.
The first time Renu went to give an audition with a guitar to be part of a concert, she was the only woman. Interestingly, Renu actually started as a vocalist in a black metal band. Learning how to play bass came out of a need because the band required a bassist and members encouraged her to learn the instrument.
Renu’s musical journey has been a rollercoaster ride. She has had people accusing her of being a drug addict because of her attire as a black metal band member, her neighbours have gossiped about her as she travelled alone with all male band members outside Kathmandu, and for having formed an all female band. But Renu does not give a damn about what people think; she does what makes her happy. She believes this is the way to move forward as a woman musician in a country like Nepal.
Her dream of forming an all-female band came true when they performed in Women in Concert in 2017. She cannot forget the appreciation she received from the crowd that day. “It was one of the happiest days of my life,” Renu recalls with a smile. However, it was not easy to form that band — it took her almost three years to finally have everyone on board.
“Learning and playing an instrument takes patience and hard work and women don’t have the level of support from their families. Today, it remains difficult to find capable women musicians,” she explained.
She thinks there are many opportunities for women artists if only they would pursue music more diligently. Many young women have reached out to her and she has assisted them with free lessons but follow-up has been few and far between.
Renu herself would have liked to learn the bass much earlier in life but there were financial constraints at home. In total she has attended only a few months classes at the Nepal Music Center and the Music Circle in Pulchowk. More of her learning of different genres of music, from black metal to gypsy jazz, came from being part of different bands. Renu thinks if she had a financial cushion when she was younger, she would have dedicated time just to learn the instrument. Over the years, playing gigs at different bars and events has been Renu’s way of not only engaging in music but a necessity to earn money.
Renu was not thinking about how many followers she would have when she launched her YouTube Channel. “It was more of a personal reason that I started it.” And despite being an avid music lover, her journey as a musician happened by chance. “I simply wanted to make videos on YouTube so that my grandkids in the future can watch them and cherish the fact that their grandmother was a bass player.” We both laughed; to think that far ahead is incredible.
It was time to say good-bye. As I collected my notebook, it felt like the Stupa was observing me. I believe it was because the Stupa enjoyed our conversation as much as I did.
Daughter of a Proud Mother
When Somea Baraili was in China playing the guitar and singing for a Chinese audience, she would even sing a Nepali song and receive a warm applause. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get a similar experience with the Nepali listeners. “Nepali crowd usually wants to listen to the songs that they like.” Somea feels music lovers should be able to enjoy all kinds of music.
Somea started performing in school when she was in grade three; the other musicians were from grades nine and ten. As a result, being in front of people and trying different kinds of music was inculcated in her from a very young age. Because she started performing gigs so early, she was able to see different facets of the music fraternity. While there have been many who appreciated her instantly successful song “Jaalma”, there have been producers, organisers and even previous band members who have tried to take advantage of her.
Being a woman and having the surname Baraili have not created an easy voyage for Somea. She believes that people who found it easy to mistreat her might not have had the guts to treat her like they did, had her surname been different.
“Our society is very judgmental. If they find a woman with tattoos on her body, has dreadlocks and is singing in night shows, they think she is ready to do anything,” Somea explains with anger in her eyes.
She thinks it is very important to be strong and vocal but also to know how and when to move away from such situations when you aren’t comfortable.
Somea believes women could contribute much to music if Nepal had a culture where musicians were shown more respect and given timely and appropriate remuneration for their efforts.
At present, Somea collaborates with a friend and they perform together for private and public events. They are working to release a song which they have composed. Somea feels music is more about emotions, than technical knowledge. Although she never studied music, she gets offered to take classes by different music schools. Hers has been a learning journey of intense practice and observation.
Somea says that singing will always remain her first love. “Previously I didn’t think much about it, but now I have come to realise that as a singer my voice is my biggest asset and I am nothing without it,” she says.
At Somea’s suggestion, the above conversation took place at her home in Aarubari where she wanted me to meet was her mother and grandmother. It became evident that a love for masala tea happened to be our common thing. When Somea went to prepare tea, her mother told me about Somea’s achievements and was especially excited to show me the Chinnalata Award that she had won when she was just 19 years old. She showed me other awards that Somea had won, all perfectly displayed in their living room. It was apparent even though Somea’s musical ride has always not been easy, she has all the support to pursue her first love.
From Jhapa’s public transport to cofounding two bands in the capital
Nikita Shrestha positively glows when she shares her experience of creating, recording and living with band mates of the group called TREES and one other artist. The occasion was a week-long home-bound musical collaboration. “I think that has to be one of the most amazing musically engaging experiences I have ever had in my musical journey,” Nikita stated with emphasis.
The group was not planning to have a song ready when they came together but at the end of the fifth day, they had both an experience that is now inked in their memories and a song to be proud of. Nikita wrote the song, Adrishya, and she performed the vocals as well. It can be viewed on their official TREES YouTube Channel.
Nikita co-founded TREES as well as SPACE with like-minded musical friends. With SPACE, she composes and sings, whereas in TREES she also plays guitar. Nikita also plays other instruments like the ukelele, flute, keyboard and kalimba; all of which she learned on her own.
Our conversation flowed freely at Patan Durbar Square. Continuing her story, Nikita shared that the best part of moving to Kathmandu from Jhapa has been having met friends who could come together to share her musical journey. She feels lucky to be welcomed by fellow musicians even if she comes from a place where the music scene is still primitive. In Jhapa, when using public transport, her guitar fully visible, she used to get strange looks from people. Some actually asked if she knew how to play the instrument.
For the most part, Nikita’s experience as a musician has been beautiful. But she is aware that there are people who seek out vulnerable women to make mistakes. “We need to be vigilant for sure.” She particularly remembers an incident where a very popular and quite elderly musician tried to cross the line with her; the irony is that she saw the same person at an event to raise awareness for violence against women and girls.
Nikita understands that many young girls are not able to pursue music due to lack of family support, but she feel that while support is necessary, it is equally important to be stubborn in the pursuit of your dreams. “I wouldn’t be here today if I had only listened to my family. If you want to change the world, it has to start with you,” Nikita asserts.
Nikita thinks technology is a huge help for upcoming artists. These days one can use their mobile phone and upload their performance that can then reach audiences around the world. Women in particular, she says, should become more comfortable using technology for their benefit. Two years ago, she was in Pokhara with a group of friends who had come from different countries with different musical instruments, some of which she had never seen before. That was the moment when Nikita realised she wanted to travel the world, meet different musicians and create and learn music with them.
Meanwhile the determined Nikita is almost finished with her studies in Architecture. The skills from Architecture has enabled her to be financially independent and buy musical instruments she needs to keep creating music.
Babysitting your cousin to buy your first instrument
Writing about musicians has been great fun – who will be the last person to meet for this piece?
When a friend of a friend suggested Aayushma Joshi and informed me that she plays the sarangi, I immediately knew that I wanted to meet and talk with her. Sarangi is a Nepali folk musical instrument. I had not seen a young woman playing sarangi before so I was excited when Aayushma agreed to meet me.
She lives in Kirtipur. She told me it was easier to get inside Tribhuvan University to find a suitable place to sit and talk. As promised, she took me inside the Anthropology Department where a small Chautari inside a beautiful park offered a wonderful place for us to have a conversation.
When I asked her how she chose the sarangi, she said, “because of its melody; it is very peaceful and soulful.” She enjoyed the way it was played as soon as she heard it at Project Sarangi, and she knew she had to learn it.
Aayushma was always musically inclined. In school and in the area where she lives, she was known for her talent in singing. Young kids from her school used to come to her mother’s shop and ask her if she was the mother of the girl who sings “English songs”.
While teachers and friends encouraged her to learn music, it was not the same at home. Her father is still not happy with her choice of studies. He wanted her to become a nurse or a banker like her cousins who studied commerce and are working in financial institutions. Instead, Aayushma is doing her Bachelor’s in Ethnomusicology at Kathmandu University.
It has not been an easy for her. She shares with a hint of sadness in her voice, “When parents don’t appreciate their children’s hard work and belittle their choices, others too find it easy to humiliate them.” She believes it is very important that children get support and encouragement at home to feel motivated to achieve new heights.
Even though her situation at home has not been ideal, Aayushma gets ample motivation from her teachers, friends and seniors at college. She was so good at playing the sarangi in her first year that her seniors approached her to learn. She has been invited to different events and programs by women-led organisations and by other musicians to perform. When she performed at the Prime Minister’s residence in Baluwatar, she was warmly appreciated. If not for the Covid 19 lockdown, Aayushma would have already travelled to Bangladesh with her teacher to perform.
Aayushma told me how she bought her first sarangi. She was yet to buy the instrument even though she had already started school. Her senior introduced her to a lady who managed a number of orphanages in the city. Aayushma got a job to teach Sarangi to young kids some of whom were physically disabled, some blind, and some deaf. Aayushma found new ways and techniques to teach them. She felt really proud that within a short period, the kids were able to learn and even perform. The earning from that job was not enough for Aayushma to buy a sarangi. As a result, when her Canada-based uncle visited her family, she offered to baby sit his little boy while he was away travelling. She glows when she describes the wood and strings used in her sarangi, and she still uses that first sarangi, her labour of love for music.
Aayushma wants to continue her studies in music. The prospect of researching music and living within different communities to understand their culture and music was why she decided to study ethnomusicology.
If opportunities present themselves, she would like to go abroad to continue her studies. Eventually she wants to then return home and start her own school for children who cannot afford to learn music. She firmly believes that if properly motivated, children can do wonders in the world of music and make the world a better place as well.
In his autobiography, the world famous musician Eric Clapton concludes by saying music is always present and survives everything, that it needs no help to exist and suffers no hindrance. Perhaps this is true for music, but it is not so for musicians.
Musicians are human beings, complex and intersectional beings. Nobody is ever only one descriptor at a time. No musician is only a musician; they have other identities because of their class, caste, age and gender. Thus, instead of only believing in music’s ability to survive on its own, we can change our attitude toward people belonging to all gender identities who choose music and perform. Work towards making music accessible and affordable for everyone, and stop prejudice against people of a certain caste and religion. Musicians should be paid better and encouraged and applauded for their efforts. Nepali culture should change its attitude toward musicians and start respecting them as much as we respect doctors and engineers.
The musicians with whom I had these fascinating conversations demonstrated determination and resilience along with their immense talent. There is no question that these women and their music are born to survive!